Student Perspective: GMC students explore ways to alleviate poverty in Rwanda

This story originally appeared in Wharton Magazine’s blog network.

These co-authors share an unexpected and enriching Global Modular Course experience that brought Wharton students and a Rwandan community together. Kristal Dehnad is enrolled in the Wharton MBA for Executives program, and Joseph Sinatra is a second-year MBA candidate.

This summer, we and 27 other Wharton MBA students bought a dairy cow. Then we gave that cow to Hakizinka Antoinette, a woman living in extreme poverty in Kabagayi, Rwanda.

Perhaps we should explain.

The cow in questionIn May, executive and full-time Wharton MBA students participated in a Global Modular Course (GMC) called Conflict, Leadership, and Change: Lessons from Rwanda. The class was led by Katherine Klein, the vice dean for social impact and Edward H. Bowman Professor of Management, and Eric Kacou, WG’04.  They were assisted by second-year Lauder student Venkatesh Saha, C’02, ENG’02, and College sophomore and native Rwandan Remy Manzi, who provided invaluable perspective and context as we immersed ourselves within the local culture.

During the course, we had the opportunity to meet with President Paul Kagame, government ministers, local business people and farmers. We learned about the challenges Rwandans faced after the 1994 genocide, and how, more recently, Rwanda has emerged as one of the fastest growing economies in Africa.

We were astounded by the scope of the economic transformation we witnessed. Although Rwanda is landlocked and resource poor—with nearly 45 percent of Rwandans living below the international poverty line (defined by the World Bank as $1.25 per day)—the breadth and pace of change was palpable. Infrastructure is booming, public services have been restored and newly created wealth is shared. More than a million Rwandans have been lifted out of poverty in the past six years alone.

No program better exemplifies this renewal than Rwanda’s “One Cow per Poor Family,” or “Girinka,” program. By providing dairy cows to poor families, Girinka plays a key role in the government’s efforts to alleviate poverty; Rwandans have received more than 145,000 cows since the program launched in 2006. The milk staves off malnutrition, while the sale of surplus milk and crops provides a supplemental income stream, which can then pay for health care and school fees. This success sustains itself, as the recipients are required to gift their first-born female calf to another poor neighbor.

Inspired by what we saw, we wanted to share a gift that expressed our appreciation and aligned with Rwanda’s vision of self-reliance. Girinka seemed the most appropriate way to show our gratitude for all that we had learned.

Cattle, economics and social status have been intertwined for generations in Rwanda.

Historically, the Belgian colonial authority designated people as Tutsi or Hutu in part based on the ownership of cattle. Moreover, the gifting and exchange of cattle forms a bond between the giver and recipient. The gifting of cattle today signifies, in the words of President Kagame, that the Rwandan people “have chosen to develop [themselves] from within.”

We worked with Manzi and the mayor of Kabgayi to identify a recipient, and they chose Antoinette.

She lost her husband during the 1994 genocide and was considered among the poorer members of her community. The cow was officially transferred during a ceremony known as Guca ubwatsi jn—which symbolizes togetherness toward progress. Members of her community promised to support Antoinette in her caretaking of the cow, to ensure Wharton’s gift would have impact for years to come.

And according to the mayor of Kabgayi, Antoinette was “happy beyond words.”

Kristal Dehnad is a student in the Wharton MBA for Executives program. Kristal currently works for Stanford University, where she is the director of the Charitable Trust Program. Prior to working at Stanford, she worked in corporate finance at Charles Schwab, Design Within Reach and a B2B startup. She is a CFA and CAIA charter holder.

Joseph Sinatra is a full-time Wharton MBA student currently in his second year. He has worked in impact investing and management consulting and is passionate about devising ways to help organizations scale.